Wednesday, July 13, 2016

WHOA for Horses! An Interview with William Koester

Archived Freelance - March/April 2016 Issue
Editor Cate Crismani

WHOA for Horses! An interview with Kentucky Owner-Breeder William Koester
by Gina McKnight

Welcome from Ohio, USA, horse enthusiast and WHOA member William Koester!

Will Koester loves horses. As a Thoroughbred Owner and Breeder for over 35 years, Koester believes, as did Winston Churchill, that there is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man. Introduced to horses as a youngster, Koester knows that horses require respect, attention, and gratitude.

Koester is a past Chairman of the Ohio State Racing Commission and ARCI (Association of Racing Commissioners International).  As an advocate for drug-free horse racing Koester joined WHOA (Water Hay Oats Alliance) in May of 2015. Koester states, “While most trainers born after 1960 have little or no experience racing without drugging their horses on race day. I refuse to believe that North American trainers are not as good as the trainers in the rest of the world.” Koester supports WHOA’s efforts to push for Federal Legislation to ban race day drugs.

I had the opportunity to interview Koester over the phone from his Kentucky home. A congenial, pleasant man, Koester was eager to talk about his passion for horse racing and his love for horses…

Gina McKnight: When was your first encounter with a horse?
William Koester: When I was a young child, my father left my mother with five kids. My mother worked at the local factory. They always shut the factory down for a week in the summertime. We didn't have a lot of disposable income, so mom would take us to River Downs (present day Belterra Park). Kids got in for free. That was the first encounter. I have liked horses since then and grew into it. The first horse that I bought was in 1981. I bought a mare. It's grown since then. Right now I have seven horses; two yearlings, a two year old, and four mares. I've been raising horses most of my life. I love it. I am really lucky because I live about an hour and a half from Lexington horseracing.

GM: Why Thoroughbreds?
WK: That was the first racing I was associated with. As much as I love horses, I have never ridden horses. I have never been hands-on. I am not a horseman. I would never claim to be a horseman. I enjoy breeding and racing, but as far as hands-on, day-to-day, that's not me. The people who deal with horses every day, those are the people I consider horseman.

GM: As a racehorse breeder and owner, do you have your own colors, jockey, etc...
WK: Everything that I have, I have in partnership with someone. It is the Sport of Kings. I am comfortable, but I am not wealthy. Everything I do, I do with partners. We race in our wives' names. I have been married 37 years, and my partner probably longer than that. We run everything in our wives name, kind of to say thanks to the wives.

GM: What do you look for in winning horse? How do you know when you have a winner?
WK: You don't. Horses are like people when you think of it as far as their ability and growth. It's like when you see a 6th grade girl with barrettes; she matured quickly. Horses are the same way. Right now the Derby trail is heating up. All the horses who are going to be in the Derby are very mature for their age. At age three, they are still babies. When the millionaires and billionaires buy at Keeneland and the other sales, they look for a horse who will run at two years. That's the Derby dream. There are some wonderful sires at Kentucky and elsewhere siring horses who run at an older age, and because of that, they are not as fashionable at the yearling sale. You might say, “Oh, that's a nice horse” but it probably won't run until it's three or four. When the wealthy people, the Sport of Kings people, buy a horse, they want a young horse who will take them to the Derby.

GM: Last May you joined WHOA. What prompted you to join?
WK: I am an anti-drug guy; always have been. From the day I got involved in WHOA, to me it is unrealistic why a horse needs to be drugged. North America is the only place in the world that drugs a horse on race day.

GM: What happened to America's ethics?
WK: It’s all about money. In a purist form of horseracing, my horse is faster than your horse, but my horse should not be faster than your horse if I drug him. In North America, back in the early '80's, they started giving a horse on race day Salix. In humans it is called Lasix. It is universally known as Furosemide; a diuretic. Of the racehorses in American, 95% race on this drug. Four hours before a race, just about every Thoroughbred in America gets a needle in their neck. Immediately, within in 10 to 15 minutes, the horse starts urinating and urinating. The horse can drop 30 pounds or more. It makes the horse lighter. No other country in the world does this, but we do it. The vets get paid, the trainers get paid, and everybody gets paid. It's embarrassing. It's an awkward subject for me. I have been to Europe and seen European racing and the people in Europe, Hong Kong, Japan and Australia, they just scoff at what we do.

GM: Where is WHOA now in the legislation process and when will the doping end?
WK: WHOA has done a wonderful job, but it's such an uphill battle. Horseracing is the only sport in the world that I know of, or I believe anybody knows of, that there isn't a boss, chairman, or president. We have multiple racing jurisdictions and every State has their own set of rules. No one wants to give up any of their power. They all make rules that they go by. Some States have government officials or veterinarians who administer the Lasix, some States have private vets who distribute the Lasix. If you have your own private vet, there might be something more in the needle than Lasix. As much as I as dislike drugging a horse on race day, I think that State officials should be administering the Lasix, and they do in some of the States now. When you look at the founders of racing you are talking about people who were millionaires and billionaires in the 1920s racing was the most popular sport in America; racing royalty, the Belmonts, Vanderbilts, Whitneys, Wrights, and Hancocks. To this day they realize that drugs don’t pass the smell test.

The horseman’s groups always talk about transparency, but could you imagine on Derby day what would happen to their viewership if four hours before the Kentucky Derby, Al Michaels or Bob Costas, whoever does it, says, "Okay, now we're are going to go show you what's going on in barns." They would show you 20 horses all being stuck with a needle in their neck. The average person who watches the Derby is not a horse owner/horse person.

GM: As former chairman of the Ohio Racing Commission, did you run into conflict with your views. I am sure Ohio allows doping...
WK: In Ohio on race day they administer Lasix, and along with another drug called an adjunct. Now, even though the adjunct has gone out of the sport, Ohio still runs with an adjunct. They'll still run with amicar (a clotting promoter).  Harness people run their horses more often than the Thoroughbreds and they are adamant and want to give every drug they can including clenburterol for its steroidal effects to keep weight on their horses.

I have heard every excuse in the world for drugging a horse on race day. I've heard them all. I've been going to the Keeneland Sale since 1980; a lot of years. I've watched people spend a lot of money - a king’s ransom on horses. There are people who will spend a million dollars on a horse, and when they get it to break it, they find out it's not a fast horse. That money is gone. It's a tax deduction for the millionaire. In horses you will see bleeders. People will say to me, "What happens if you have a horse who's a bleeder?" I tell them that it is no different than if you spent money on a horse that's slow. It's the luck of the draw.

The Breeder's Cup is run in America. Euros come over and race at the Breeder's Cup. It's kind of a rivalry thing, but over in Europe they race mostly on turf/grass. Whereas over here they race on dirt, but the Breeder's Cup has a variety of horses. It's an enticement, along with the huge purses, for the Europeans to come over here to race. It wasn't too long ago that the great race mare Goldkova came from Europe and won three Breeder's Cups in a row. She was a tremendous race mare. She ran all over Europe and never ran on drugs, but every time she came over here, she ran on drugs because it's a performance enhancer. When she ran at Santa Anita in California, they interviewed her trainer Freddie Head and Freddie wouldn't talk about it. Freddie said that was a subject he would not discuss. Champion Golden Horn did not run on drugs at the 2015 Breeders Cup and did not win.

The masters of horse racing are the Irish. The stables of Coolmore stand stallions in Ireland, Australia, and Lexington. They stand the finest stallions in the world. As a matter of fact, the Triple Crown Winner, American Pharaoh, is standing at Coolmore here in Lexington. They have the world's most renowned trainer, Aidan O'Brien, and when they come over here with their Irish horses, they give them Lasix because they know it's a performance enhancer. Coolmore are the master of horse racing and breeding.

GM: How long do you think it will be before America's horse racing is drug free?
WK: I think that America will not be drug free in horse racing until it becomes such an embarrassment to the sport. It's frustrating for me to see horses drugged on race day. I don't like it. I don't approve of it. It doesn't pass the smell test. In places where they race and spend billions of dollars, like Hong Kong, this would never happen. In today's world I think the two most motivating factors for anything is a fear or embarrassment. Like I mentioned earlier, if the general public knew what was happening, they would be outraged of the drugs used on race day. Of course, American horse racing is actually the only sport in the world used for welfare.  You have, for instance, the State of Ohio, along with Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky evolving into it; they have casinos. They have used the horse racing track as casino hubs. A percent of the quarters that go into slot machines goes into horseracing to enhance purses [parimutuel wagering]. As much as I love horseracing, it's a dying sport. It's not a flourishing sport by any stretch of the imagination.

GM: A worthy cause, indeed. We should all support WHOA and their efforts. Is there anything else you would like to add?
WK: I am sure what I say will be scrutinized. My question is, "How come everyone else in the world can do it, but we can't?" They would tell me all their excuses..."We have pollution, etc." I don't know if you've ever been to Hong Kong, but the pollution is so bad you can't see across the street. Leading Hong Kong trainer John Size says it best, "good horsemanship doesn't come in a syringe or a bottle". It's way past time for North America to get in step with the rest of the world, and race our horses, race day drug free. 

Connect with William Koester via email:

Support WHOA
The Water Hay Oats Alliance (WHOA) is a grassroots movement of like-minded individuals who support the passage of federal legislation to prohibit the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the sport of horse racing.  The appointment of an independent anti-doping program run by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) will solve the problem of widespread drug use in American racing and put U.S. racing jurisdictions in step with international standards.  Doping destroys public confidence in racing, defrauds the betting fan, weakens the genetic pool and, most importantly, puts the life and limb of our equine athletes and their jockeys at risk.  It is obvious that after years of committee review and discussion, America's racing industry cannot police itself by eliminating the proliferation of performance enhancing drugs in our sport, nor does it possess the power to adequately punish the purveyors of these drugs. Read Comments from other WHOA Supporters.
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Gina McKnight is an author, freelancer, equestrian, blogger, and poet from Ohio USA.

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